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Why Helen Hunt Deserves a Best Actress Oscar for The Sessions

The Oscars are odd. It’s just about the only reason left for having them; that and for the sake of the people who make red carpets. Every year when the nominations come out, there are three or four days of stories about the “surprises” and the people who were “snubbed.” So Tom Hooper and Kathryn Bigelow were overlooked, but Michael Haneke was remarked on. And Helen Hunt got a supporting actress nod for The Sessions. No, I’m not suggesting that she was undeserving—far from it. But what scheme of things is it that decides her Cheryl in that film is a supporting part?

The Sessions opened in the middle of November 2012, and by nomination day it did not feature in the top 25 films at the American box office. It had taken in about $7 million in two months. That’s not serious money—until you realize that The Sessions had a budget of just $1 million. So it’s done very well, and so it should.

It’s a picture based closely on fact, and it’s dedicated to “Mark O’Brien,” one of its central characters. Mark (John Hawkes) had polio when he was a child and became paralyzed in all but his head. He couldn’t be out of his iron lung for more than three or four hours. But his mind was not just sharp; it was like an open razor because all of his being had to go there. He was a virgin, and he would rather not be. His amiable if far-fetched priest (William H. Macy) recommended a therapist, and so he found his way to a sex surrogate, Cheryl. There was a real Cheryl (in Berkeley, California, in the 1980s). She had a husband and a teenage son, and she was kind, friendly, and professional. She helped people with a handicap to have sexual expression. Everyone was of the opinion that she did a good job with Mark. The plan was to have six sessions, but they made it in four. That’s when they had simultaneous orgasms. “What’s that?” asks the manager of the motel where they held the last two sessions. This man has no apparent physical handicap; he seems to be a decent guy. But there are decent people who don’t know enough about sex—and don’t want to know.

That’s one reason, I think, why The Sessions has only done $7 million. It’s a heartfelt movie, a feel-good story with an uplifting ending and irreproachable educational value. It’s only an “R” picture, when it might have been—should have been?—an NC-17. That’s not an attack on the ratings board, but a way of wondering if the film should not have been more explicit. I feel odd saying that because it has Helen Hunt being gracious and natural in showing us her naked self. We can say she’s Cheryl, but the body belongs to Hunt. Helen Hunt is forty-nine, and she has an Oscar already (for As Good As It Gets) as well as several Emmys (for Mad About You). Even a movie critic can see—and say—that she is very attractive and possessing a very good body. She is also a lead actress in The Sessions.

If I was not emotionally committed to Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (she is closer to my age), and if Amour was not the superior film, I would urge the Academy to give best actress to Hunt. They can’t, and most expert opinion thinks Anne Hathaway will get supporting actress for Les Miserables where she sings a song some people seem to think worthy of the Gershwins. Hathaway is a good sport, brave enough to deal with that song, but the supporting actress Oscar should go to Helen Hunt, not for showing us her body, but for delivering an extraordinary performance playing a very confused woman. The Sessions acts upon the assumption that Mark is life’s victim, a deprived being yet a horny virgin. But Cheryl is a piece of work beyond his dreams, and Hunt knows that.

When Cheryl is introduced, she notes the envelope of cash that Mark has had put aside to pay her, and tells him she’s not a prostitute but a professional sex surrogate, someone skilled in helping handicapped people get a little more out of life. But this is a movie, and Cheryl is rich territory for an actress. The sentiment of the story arc, which is both predictable and sentimental, is that Cheryl falls in love with Mark. That is not hard to understand: he is smart, wry, honest, obedient and very grateful, qualities not abundant in Cheryl’s husband. It’s partly because both patient and therapist see this coming that they cut off at four sessions, and there is an intriguing irony at work—that as Mark finds expression, so Cheryl gets herself into a trap. To be precise, after she has made him come in her (the first such event of his life), he wonders if she might come too with him in her.

Are you a little embarrassed at this talk? Well, you might be, because the questions being asked apply to people without obvious handicaps, too. In the event, and rather doubting its likelihood, Cheryl does come with Mark inside her. This is a very tender moment, played with care and wonder by Helen Hunt. Because she’s faking her orgasm, isn’t she? Isn’t that what actors do in movies with an “R” rating? The intrigue becomes tangled here. In a film apparently concerned with the engineering of sex, his penetration of her is not shown; it is evoked. And her orgasm is simulated in a feat of acting, no matter how far it comes out of sense memory. Where does fiction start and documentary end? That is Hunt’s body, her breasts, her pubic hair—though we don’t see Mark’s dick because the use of actor John Hawkes’s penis would get the film banned or an NC-17, which would kill its entertainment prospects and educational value.

There is a documentary on the real Mark O’Brien. It’s called Breathing Lessons (directed by Jessica Yu) and it won the Oscar for short subject documentary in 1997. It consists largely of Mark talking and telling his story. The Sessions, by contrast, is a feature film (written and directed by Ben Lewin), or a documentary about actors, and I suspect it is more striking and useful as an educational force than Breathing Lessons. That motel manager is a sidelong concession to us, or to those of us who don’t know enough about sex, including the rare delicacy and kindness of a pretending that can enter into it. Falling in love is pretence made into a life art, and the reason why so many people who have sex find they need to be in love. Helen Hunt deserves much more than the supporting actress Oscar—but that is available.